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Editorial: Clarification needed so megaload morass ends

Somebody was bound to go first.

After a few weeks of a testy Alphonse-and-Gaston routine over authority to issue megaloads permits, the Idaho Transportation Department took the initiative a week ago and handed the paperwork to Omega Morgan. Monday, the company began hauling a huge water purifier up U.S. Highway 12 toward Lolo Pass, Mont., and, eventually, Canada.

The submissive U.S. Forest Service reasserted its opposition to the move but continued to insist it has no authority to block the shipments despite a February U.S. District Court ruling that it does. So Idaho Rivers United and the Nez Perce Tribe have returned to court with a request that the judge do what he said the federal agency can do but won’t: Stop the shipment.

Tribal members, meanwhile, attempted to block the highway with their bodies and with stones, which earned them relatively minor citations and fines.

The load was off the reservation as of Thursday but still within the confines of the Wild and Scenic Rivers boundaries established more than 30 years ago.

Or is that “wild and scenic industrial corridor”?

Before the water purifier hit the road, we suggested the lack of clarity regarding authority and even the definition of “megaload” was troubling. The frustration among the Nez Perce is an understandable if unfortunate response to perceptions that the Forest Service is not upholding federal statutes or backing up their demands that megaloads be halted while the effects on their treaty prerogatives are considered.

Those consultations are supposed to begin Aug. 20. A second megaload will likely have been dispatched before that meeting occurs. There will be dozens more in the future unless there is a determination that the loads compromise the meaning of “wild and scenic,” and the safety of other drivers.

Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell is in quite a pickle, with the tribe and Idaho Rivers United pressing him on one side and, from the other, the Idaho Department of Transportation, which has nothing to lose by issuing a permit. An ongoing stream of megaloads would be good business for the state and the Port of Lewiston.

And the greater the potential traffic through the port, the greater the justification for dredging of the Snake River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A dredging decision is pending.

Clearly, Omega Morgan, its customers and other shippers and manufacturers prefer a Highway 12 route that avoids overpasses and obstacles on other routes that force them to break the loads down into smaller pieces and suffer the increased costs. But where is the public interest?

Policymaking should be more than staring down the opposition. The consultations Brazell wants to undertake could be useful, but only if the District Court reinforces its February ruling, and all the parties can negotiate a permanent framework for regulating megaloads, if in fact they are compatible with tribal rights and the intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

A repeat of this week’s circus is not acceptable.


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